News & Analysis

Starbucks, Airpods, and the Fleece Vest: The Rise of Wall Street’s Greatest Fixture

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The look taking over Wall Street today: fleece vest, khakis, button down, and Starbucks. (Illustration: Joe Mckendry/WSJ)

A short stroll down a Manhattan block guarantees the sighting of three things: a dairy-free Starbucks latte, constellations of Apple Airpods, and now, the Patagonia fleece vest. Adorned with a corporate logo, Wall Street’s new favorite apparel has reformed hushed back-office bankers into proud paramilitary units. The color, brand, and corporate logo on the vest all indicate a power hierarchy very much parallel to the military’s, with insignias, badges, and uniforms denoting experience, connections,  and influence.

Sixteenth century postmen, servants, and even miners would don badges or other signifiers to announce their allegiance to their businesses, masters, or causes; these tools both fostered comradery and demonstrated respect for their bearers’ superiors. The concept of the uniform slowly bled into the civil service, and by the Napoleonic Era governments began to require bureaucrats and other civil officials to adhere to a strict code of colors, shapes, and badges that reflected one’s standing within the bureaucracy. Uniforms, at this time, were used to undermine the power of the aristocracy and church by strengthening one’s commitment to the country and government over the Lord and lord. As nation states continued to develop through, at times, violent revolutions, there was also a sense of nationalism and pride that government employees derived from their uniforms, making them feel almost as if they were on the front lines fighting their own bloodless battles. 

Wall Street underwent its own revolution after the 2008 Great Recession prompted a period of modernization and new vigor in the finance industry. This change was no more evident than in the evolution in the style of investment bankers. The typical dress of Wall Street pre-2008 was a simple, tailored gray suit paired with a conservative striped tie, patterned pocket square, and a freshly shined pair of brown loafers, a look that one could have torn directly out of a Brooks Brothers catalog. Now, however, the sterile and stark looks of the classic American power suit have morphed into a relaxed yet sophisticated uniform: a gray or navy fleece vest paired with a button-down, chino pants, and maybe even leather sneakers. Dubbed the “Midtown Uniform” by many for its popularity throughout Midtown Manhattan, the previously overlooked and rarely worn fleece vest has newly cemented itself in the cultural fabric of Wall Street. 

While financiers were once rarely talked about in the context of fashion and culture, the fleece vest has propelled them to the homepage of Instagram. @Midtownuniform, along with other “finmeme” accounts, has comically revolutionized the relationship between finance and social media. As seen below, much of their content for their 153,000 followers revolves around mocking the infamous fleece vest and “finance bros” named Chad, Brad, or any other strikingly Anglo-Saxon name. 

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The Midtown uniform has similar effects, if not objectives, to that of military fatigues or tie-dyed greek life t-shirts: it brings a group of people together by creating an instantly recognizable common identity. The fleece vest is Wall Street’s attempt to physically manifest the youthful, fraternal culture it has developed over the last decade. Today, it is not uncommon to see bankers lining the bars and restaurants drinking with one another and watching sports after a long day in the office. This colossal deviation from the previous hush-hush, ultra-professional culture on Wall Street makes evident that the Great Recession fundamental changed the finance industry beyond investment strategies and portfolio management. 

While financiers may like to think that their vest revolution has been unmatched, a comparable revolution has occurred on the West Coast in Silicon Valley. Instead of the relaxed fleece vest seen across Manhattan, however, it is the down-filled puffer vest that executives like Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Lachlan Murdoch, the CEO of Fox Corporation and son of media titan Rupert Murdoch, have made the new style a staple among the rank-in-file in Silicon Valley. High-end brands like Moncler, Brunello Cucinelli, and Ralph Lauren have cashed in on the new trend; Edited, a retail information firm, reported that Moncler’s revenues were up 27 percent last year, with its iconic vests making up a significant portion of this growth business. 

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Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon, arrives for the third day of the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference, July 13, 2017 in Sun Valley, Idaho. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Amid this vast boom in demand for vests, puffer and fleece alike, quintessential vest manufacturer Patagonia announced in early April 2019 that they would no longer be co-branding its classic Synchilla® Fleece Vest with finance firms, citing a conflicting outlook between its business and those of Wall Street on both the environment and corporate responsibility. Regarding its decision, Patagonia’s corporate statement emphasized that “…the brand is really focused right now on only co-branding with a small collection of like-minded and brand aligned areas; outdoor sports that are relevant to the gear we design, regenerative organic farming, and environmental activism.”

When adopted on Wall Street, the Patagonia vest was seen by many as a way to exhibit, if not bring, a newfound social consciousness to the world of finance, a move that reflects the broader changes in corporate culture across America. Further reactions to the Great Recession on Wall Street culture include the rise of “socially responsible” investing, in which funds like the SPDR Gender Diversity Index ETF (NYSE: SHE) and iShares Low Carbon Target ETF (NYSE: CRBN) invest only in companies that meet certain popular characteristics, like having a high percentage of women in executive roles or that really “care” about the economy. Usually looking past the financial prudence of these investments, institutional and individual investors have become attracted to these funds because it makes them feel, or at least portray themselves as positive change-makers, even if they are making a few dollars while they’re at it.

Indeed, while it may appear that the “finance bro” vest comes across as more personable and relatable, it is, quite frankly, representative of the exact opposite. Anyone with the money can go to his or her local department store and walk out with a classic three-piece suit; but the logo-adorned vest, on the other hand, takes hard-work, an elite education, and connections to get. A suit may cost thousands of dollars, but what it takes to receive one of these vests is priceless. It is for these reasons that the vest has emphasized the transformation of Wall Street from an old boys’ club into a corporate fraternity. Many may rush, but only the most elite applicants get a pledge and a vest. 

While more and more American companies, of whom finance firms are but a small minority, continue to promote a narrative of growing changes towards more socially responsible business practices, one cannot help but notice that these endless initiatives bring about few, if any, results. 181 CEOs, may of whom are in finance, signed on to the Business Roundtable Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation that seeks to promote “fair” and “ethical” practices relating to the environment, gender equality, and accessible workplaces, but what meaningful change has actually occurred? As Milton Friedman warned in 1970, speeches on corporate responsibility by businessmen “may gain them kudos in the short run. But it helps to strengthen the already too prevalent view that the pursuit of profits is wicked and immoral and must be curbed and controlled by external forces.” It should come as no surprise that likely Democratic presidential nominee Elizabeth Warren responded to the Business Roundtable statement with letters to organization’s CEOs demanding that they back their rhetoric by implementing the rules and procedures in her Accountable Capitalism Act.  The bill would require large corporations to receive renewable federal charters, mandate that 40% of the board of directors be elected by the workers, further restrict sales of shares by employees, and require a combination of board and shareholder approval for all “political” expenditures. An inclusive and supportive workplace is paramount to corporate success, and businesses should be free to adopt more socially progressive policies as they see fit. But by making such blatantly empty overtures, corporations, including Wall Street, are setting themselves up for a tidal wave of economy-withering regulation. Politicians and voters see right through branded vests and press statements – for Wall Street and American corporations to survive and thrive in tomorrow’s regulatory environment, they will either need to commit to real, lasting social change, or abandon these broad pronouncements and return to their original, true purpose and function: profit. 

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